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Lawmakers try to quash lead paint ballot initiative

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“The initiative is brazen even by California standards but also clever”

Photo by Thester11/Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, the proposed California ballot initiative originally titled the “Healthy Homes and Schools Act” doesn’t sound so bad. After all, who doesn’t like healthy homes and healthy schools?

According to the summary released in December, the act would put up a $2 billion bond for the purposes of rehabbing buildings that may contain toxic materials:

[Bond money is] to be deposited in the Healthy Home Remediation Account, which is hereby created in the fund. Moneys in the account shall be available, upon appropriation by the Legislature, for competitive grants to assist homeowners in the remediation of structural and environmental hazards, which includes, but is not limited to mold, asbestos, radon, water, pests, ventilation and lead hazards.

In 2016, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data revealed that lead toxicity levels in some California neighborhoods—including Fruitvale in Oakland and parts of the Mission in San Francisco—are comparable with those in Flint, Michigan, often due to old, lead-based paints.

So, why would a cleanup program that includes funds for lead removal be controversial? AS it turns out, the biggest beneficiaries of the law would be paint companies themselves.

The Sacramento Bee explained in January:

The initiative is brazen even by California standards but also clever. It would absolve the companies of liability by declaring that “lead-based paint on or in private or public residential properties, whether considered individually, collectively, or in the aggregate, is not a public nuisance.” It also would apply to any lawsuit “pending on appeal on, or filed after, Nov. 1, 2017.”

That last point is particularly important, since an appeals court ruled in 2017 that three paint companies—ConAgra, NL Industries, and Sherwin-Williams—are on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in costs from lead paint cleanup in California cities.

Except, if the proposed ballot initiative passes, they wouldn’t be, and the cost of cleanup would fall to the state. In response, California lawmakers announced a passel of proposed bills in late March that would mitigate the effects of the act if it makes the ballot and passes.

Workers in hazmat suits stripping lead paint from the side of a house. Photo by Jamie Hooper/Shutterstock

Alameda rep Rob Bonta’s AB 2074 would make it easier for Californians to sue paint companies over lead exposure by changing the burden of proof standards.

“[Lead] is very insidious and it’s in a lot of places,” Bonta said at a March 22 press conference. “The CDC says there is no safe level of lead. That’s true everywhere.”

Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva’s AB 3009 levels a fee on all paint sold in California, but only takes effect if the bond initiative passes. Other bills, including one by San Francisco’s David Chiu, limit the liability of homeowners who try to clean up lead paint themselves.

Of course, the necessity of many of those proposed laws depends on the success of the ballot initiative in the first place. In January, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra changed the title of the measure from Healthy Homes and Schools Act to eliminate “certain liability for lead-paint manufacturers” instead.